As we prepare for the launch of LB Food Scene Week, running Aug. 8 through Aug. 19 at over 30 restaurants spread across the city, we want to highlight businesses and restaurants we’ve partnered with that celebrate our culinary scene. For more information about the weeklong celebration of Long Beach’s food scene, click here.
It’s actually rather hard to pinpoint where El Barrio Cantina lies on the culinary spectrum—Mexican, yes, of course, but not in a way that is, by any means, traditional. In fact, it might even be best to say that El Barrio is a very Long Beach and Los Angeles restaurant—SoCal, for lack of a better term—where the stereotype of the “melting pot” of cultures actually does exist.
Chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro definitively refrains from politicizing food: Unlike, say, Chef Thomas Ortega of Playa Amor and Amor y Tacos, blatantly calling his food “pocho cuisine” (“pocho” is a term used by native Mexicans to deride Mexican-Americans), Pineda-Alfaro dismisses the conversation entirely.
“My food is here,” he said. “I was born in L.A. and raised in it. I was surrounded by different cultures, people from different countries—and my food reflects that. Of course, it’s also a direct reflection of my Mom and her food, which I grew up eating.”
There’s a definitive frankness in Pineda-Alfaro’s words; he will happily tell you there is no need to go onto philosophical diatribes that mix the complicated history of a given food’s diaspora and his own food and his humble refusal to engage in that conversation is just that: a humble one—but a firm stance nonetheless. Pineda-Alfaro comes from that all-too-old-school camp that food should speak for itself and for him, the reflections of his Mexican heritage, American upbringing, and mother’s influence shine perfectly bright on their own in his plates.
The latest iteration of his menu just does that, showcasing SoCal’s love of everything from Italian food and Asian noodles to mini odes to Taco Bell (with his “Empanada Supreme,” where a Wagyu beef empanada is then topped with birria and drizzled with sour cream a la Taco Bell’s “supreme” versions of things).
And yes, it is reflected in whimsical plates like his chicharrón de salmon, a delightfully salty-meets-umami-meets-citrus appetizer that can easily be downed by a single person in one setting, an elevated poem to the tiny-but-mighty fish stick if there was one.
There are spotlights on pastas and noodles: A truly fantastic birria ramen joins a creamy seafood pasta-gone-fideo (the later of which joins a solid squash fideo).
The former somehow doesn’t feel on-the-nose with the trend that blew up shortly before the pandemic; Pineda-Alfaro’s soy birria broth is the main star, where his substitution of traditional beef or goat with pork birria chashu is both smile- and saliva-inducing. And the latter is, simply put, a creamy, umami dream that feels like an elevated classic fideo slathered with some crema; it feels like home-but-not-really.
And yes, El Barrio’s dedication to largely traditional foods—particularly and especially their focus on ceviches and raw fishes—are some of Pineda-Alfaro’s strongest plates: The ceviche de salmon is a creamy ode to the popular seafood dish that is a central pillar to Mexican cuisine while an albacore crudo takes on a Mexican-meets-Peruvian influence with Oaxacan favorite that are chapulines (grasshopper), Peruvian aji amarillo and corn, and yam.
The ceviche de salmon [left] and the tuna ceviche [right] are just two examples of a hefty crudo menu at El Barrio. Photos by Brian Addison.
But this silent middle-finger to boundaries or definitions or the “pocho food” conversation is no more apparent or brilliantly executed than with El Barrio’s birria lasagna, a firm handshake between two food cultures who share more than they don’t: Italy and Mexico.
“The thought behind it kind of just came naturally,” Pineda-Alfaro said. “I love pasta and I wanted to create a lasagna that puts everything you would have on a birria taco into the layers.”
The result? Green tinged lasagna sheets infused with onion and cilantro, stuffed with Barrio’s birria de res and layered with cilantro-infused requeson-style whey cheese, and topped off with a marinara-inspired salsa (that is essential; drizzle it all over the damn thing).
All in all, Chef? Keep doing what you’re doing.
El Barrio Cantina is located at 1731 4th St. For LB Food Scene Week, they will be offering a three-course dinner with a drink for $35. To view the menu, click here.